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Jeff Zucker: President Trump’s Attacks Haven’t Hurt CNN’s Brand

President Trump’s steady stream of attacks on CNN’s credibility has not hurt the news organization’s reputation in the minds of consumers, nor has it scared away any advertisers. That was the word from CNN president Jeff Zucker and top Turner execs Thursday at a state-of-the-company luncheon presentation in Manhattan.

Zucker said CNN conducted its largest-ever brand survey last month out of a desire to gauge whether Trump’s broadsides about CNN serving up “fake news” were having a lasting impact on prospective viewers.

“There has been no diminution whatsoever in the CNN brand,” Zucker said. “It’s as strong as it’s ever been. It’s incredibly trusted and we see no impact whatsoever in all of those attacks on the CNN brand.”

Turner president David Levy said there have been no advertiser pullouts, either. CNN has seen its ad revenue spike along with ratings as the public continues to remain heavily engaged in politics and the latest moves of the new administration. “We’ve not had one question” from advertisers, Levy said. “We’re having another record quarter as we speak.”

Zucker said CNN’s overall viewership for the first seven weeks of the year was up 51% compared to the same period in 2016. Despite the polarization laid bare by the presidential election, CNN enjoys a broad base of viewers. “I don’t think we could be up 51% and that could all be folks who don’t like Donald Trump,” he said. “It is a cross-section of the country.” He added that CNN reporters have been “very committed” to covering the disconnect in the country, outside of the fracas in Washington, between Trump supporters and detractors.

Also top of mind for Zucker was the danger to press freedom around the world posed by the Venezuelan government’s decision on Wednesday to yank the linear feed of CNN Español from the country’s airwaves. Zucker said the government was also threatening to take down the English-language feed of CNN, the feed to CNN Chile, and to block the CNN Español website and YouTube channels. The battle was sparked by CNN Español’s recent report on a counterfeit passport ring alleged to have ties that run high up into the Venezuelan government.

“When an authoritarian regime starts taking down feeds and blocking websites just because we expose the truth … that’s an attack on freedom of the press everywhere,” Zucker said. “When authoritarian regimes around the world start attacking journalists like that, we all have a problem.”

Turner chairman-CEO John Martin and Giorgio Stock, president of Europe, Middle East and Africa for Turner’s international arm, weighed in during a Q&A session with reporters on everything from Time Warner’s pending merger with AT&T to the surprising success of Turner’s ELeague video game competition venture with IMG.

Given the state of politics at home, it was no surprise that most of the two dozen or so reporters in the room directed most of the questions to Zucker and CNN’s coverage of the administration that continues to defy convention. Zucker said he hadn’t spoken to the President since sometime in December, when Trump last called the CNN chief to complain about coverage. (Zucker and Trump’s ties go back to the dawn of “The Apprentice” on NBC when Zucker was running the Peacock’s TV operations.)

Zucker disputed the notion that the Trump administration has enacted a “ban” on officials appearing on CNN shows. He said the flap arose earlier this month when the White House made Vice President Mike Pence available to CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox’s Sunday morning public affairs shows but not to CNN’s “State of the Union.” The White House has shunned “State of the Union” for the past three Sundays, but “let’s see what happens this week,” Zucker added.

In a sign of the times, while Zucker was being pressed on the impact of Trump’s CNN-bashing, the President was holding a press conference where he further blasted mainstream media coverage of his administration, including a lengthy exchange with CNN’s Jim Acosta about the difference between “fake news” and “real leaks.”

Jake Tapper had a memorable session last week with presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway, who has become a lightning rod for criticism and questions about her veracity given her recent history of making assertions in media interviews that turn out to be false. Tapper’s Feb. 8 interview with Conway was the first time she had appeared on CNN’s air since the Jan. 20 inauguration — at CNN’s choice.

“We don’t feel it’s hurting us in any way,” Zucker said of the chilly relations with the White House. “Our journalism has been leading the way in coverage of this administration. It has not hurt our ability to tell the story or attract an audience.”

Zucker would not go so far as to rule out future interviews with Conway, as MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” did this week. She has some credibility issues but “that’s not to say we would not put her on again if we deemed it the right time and if it’s relevant,” he said.

Martin and Zucker both emphasized the strides that CNN is making in the digital realm. “CNN is not a television network that has a website,” Zucker said. “CNN is a full-fledged media company.” CNN has embarked on a five-year plan to generate $1 billion in revenue from digital operations worldwide, he said.

Among other topics from the session:

  • After Time Warner shareholders voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to approve the $85.4 billion sale to AT&T, Martin said discussions about post-merger integration plans should begin in the coming weeks. The company recently received a second request for information from the Justice Department, which is “reasonably straightforward,” he said.
  • Martin made a point of highlighting the new Charles Barkley documentary series “The Race Card,” set to premiere later this year on TNT. The effort to examine the state of race, politics and class in the U.S. by visiting various cities including Baltimore is “a whole different approach to what you think about from Charles Barkley,” Martin said.
  • Levy talked up the potential of the ELeague venture that blends digital and TV broadcasts of video gaming competitions. Competitions air live on the gaming-centric Twitch digital platform on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday while final rounds air live on TBS on Fridays. “It’s really the next generation of how you think about sports — owning not just the TV portion but everything around it,” Levy said.
  • Turner has been growing at a fast clip on the international front, adding 30 networks in 2015 and 12 in 2016. Next up, Turner is looking at launching direct-to-consumer offerings overseas “in the general entertainment and kids space,” Stock said.
  • The buzzy “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” has been a welcome hit for TBS, but there are no plans at present to expand the show beyond its weekly format. “She’s very focused on her family,” Levy said of Bee.

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